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I'm sorry if this is the wrong place to ask this but I don't know any other place to ask.

I'm a research professor, but I enjoy teaching and put a lot of time into my classes. I mainly teach introductory calculus and physics to mainly engineering students. One of the things I've noticed while talking to students is their hate and animosity towards the liberal arts.

I asked for some of my students reasoning and a lot of it was that History, English, Classics, etc. did not follow the "laws of logic and reasoning." There are other examples, but I those are the ones the most common, along with "it's not applicable to life."

I just want my students to learn that living in a bubble academically is not good for your knowledge, and the Colleges and Universities are there to help create educated individuals.

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you could ask in Academia SE? $\endgroup$ – Benjamin Dickman Apr 14 '15 at 19:19
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    $\begingroup$ No time for a real answer, but something that I've found is my engineering/math mind enjoys making and finding connections. So one way is to pull in random pieces from other fields during your lectures. For instance, a lot of people are unaware just how much math played a part in Alice in Wonderland. Some are aware how it plays a part in greek architecture. Nature/biology/geology follows so many patterns it's hard not to see the math in it - unless you've not looked. So each time you present, consider the lesson carefully and consider dragging in other subjects to form those connections. $\endgroup$ – Adam Davis Apr 15 '15 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ daily reminder that mandatory liberal arts classes at many universities can feel much more like forced indoctrination than challenging courses for learning application (for example i've had students tell me about professors that have told white students they have an obligation to have mixed race children because of their 'innate white privilege)'. Maybe they have a point. $\endgroup$ – hownowbrowncow Apr 15 '15 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you should encourage your students to cut down on watching The Big Bang Theory =) $\endgroup$ – Joseph Apr 16 '15 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AdamDavis, the problem is that (unless the lecturer has a solid understanding of the other area) cross-connections tend to be in rather superficial or useless aspects (as viewed from the other side). As a result, they turn out more damaging than helping. Deep connections require deep understanding, at both sides. Hard to get there... $\endgroup$ – vonbrand Mar 3 '16 at 19:29
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[This is a particular problem in the UK, where specialization into STEM occurs during high school.]

I fully agree that a broad education is important in and of itself. What is also true is that it is important to an engineering career.

I once gave a talk to a high school in which I talked about what I currently do in an engineering field and had a slide in which I showed various subjects I draw upon myself and look for in recruits. Turns out that every high school subject had some relevance.

The key is that engineering's ultimate job is to provide solutions to people. Providing those solutions requires working with people, understanding their needs and documenting in a manner both parties understand. This places a high demand on both written and spoken language skills.

What does that have to do with history, for example? Chances are that many of your students simply have little understanding of what historians actually do. A huge element of history today is analysis of texts. The ability to take a text and understand that various conclusions can be drawn is not the same as saying "logic and reasoning do not apply", in fact the contrary. These skills apply directly to engineering specifications, standards and associated legal contracts.

In short, the liberal arts are about the study and language and people. Engineering in the real world (as opposed due during study) requires those skills. My experience is that engineers who do not have such skills are limited in their career, particularly in regards to leadership opportunities.

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    $\begingroup$ Wonderful post, I agree with all of your points. I think you hit the nail on the head in regards to the definition of what historians actually do. I personally noticed that the it's mainly the engineering majors that sort of have an distaste for learning, but that is a post for another time! $\endgroup$ – AJS Apr 15 '15 at 4:08
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Perhaps your engineering students would listen to Steve Jobs, from a NYTimes article:

At an event unveiling new Apple products, Mr. Jobs said: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing and nowhere is that more true than in these post-PC devices."


Added. Here is a thoughtful blog post by Robert Talbert about engineering and liberal education, "What (some) engineers think about liberal education":

There is an entire division ... within the ASEE [American Society for Engineering Education] for Liberal Education. ... One might even say that those in charge of accrediting engineering programs want engineers to be liberally educated. ... What nobody seems able to explain just yet is the implicit and sometimes explicit resistance to liberal education among many engineers and engineering programs.

Sounds like the OP is experiencing that "resistance."

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I actually come from the almost opposite situation as you, liberal arts students who have little to no appreciation for mathematics. Through my frustrations I have learned that mathematics has actually managed to find its way into nearly every field of study including art, history, science, philosophy and even literature. Below are some examples of topics that I have shown my students that really got them thinking about math in the world around them

  • Platonian Philosophy and the Platonic Solids
  • Fibonacci numbers and their appearance in nature and art
  • The golden mean, its relevance to art and the Fibonacci numbers
  • The Twelve-Mile Circle, its history, its geography and determining its geometric center
  • History of ancient mathematics (Egyptians, Indian, Mayan, Babylonian, Chinese, Arabic) and ancient perspectives on numbers
  • "Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare", a poem by Edna St. Vincent Mallay
  • Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott and The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, two amazing books inspired by mathematics
  • Origami, papercraft and the math that goes into the art
  • The similarity between the creative process and the proof process (conjecture, experiment, assess, rinse, wash, repeat)

Math can literally be linked to just about any discipline or topic, you just have to spend the time looking and making the connections :)

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If you believe it, teach by example. Include literate references along with your lectures and lessons. Point to authors like Knuth who include quotations along with their technical material, as well as analyze. Note that successful mathematicians are not only mathematicians, but writers, performers, students and enthusiasts in other subjects. In my teaching section, I would write a quotation on the board for my students to look at during section, which would have some connection to the material being taught.

For those that desire application of liberal arts, note that communication, organization of presentation, efficacy of examples, and other points can rely heavily on knowledge of culture, history, and society. Those that desire relevance of mathematics in liberal arts, note that pattern, aesthetic quality, self-referential structure, and various other formal and logical aspects are tools to help create and transmit ideas and feelings, or even evoke feelings in the recipient. A goal of liberal arts is to interact with other minds; those minds are more capable of such interaction with a full education than with a partial education.

Gerhard "Going To Fill My Brain" Paseman, 2015.04.14

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You want to convince people of the importance of (a subset of) the humanities and social sciences? Bring proof. Bring scientific studies that point to the efficacy of learning these things and the results they will bring. You may be showing a failling that some of social science seems to have: trying to convice people before you know what is true.

I'll give you a counter-example:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-emotional-intelligence/282720/


From the article

In settings where emotions aren’t running high, emotional intelligence may have hidden costs. Recently, psychologists Dana Joseph of the University of Central Florida and Daniel Newman of the University of Illinois comprehensively analyzed every study that has ever examined the link between emotional intelligence and job performance. Across hundreds of studies of thousands of employees in 191 different jobs, emotional intelligence wasn’t consistently linked with better performance. In jobs that required extensive attention to emotions, higher emotional intelligence translated into better performance. Salespeople, real-estate agents, call-center representatives, and counselors all excelled at their jobs when they knew how to read and regulate emotions—they were able to deal more effectively with stressful situations and provide service with a smile.

However, in jobs that involved fewer emotional demands, the results reversed. The more emotionally intelligent employees were, the lower their job performance. For mechanics, scientists, and accountants, emotional intelligence was a liability rather than an asset. Although more research is needed to unpack these results, one promising explanation is that these employees were paying attention to emotions when they should have been focusing on their tasks. If your job is to analyze data or repair cars, it can be quite distracting to read the facial expressions, vocal tones, and body languages of the people around you. In suggesting that emotional intelligence is critical in the workplace, perhaps we’ve put the cart before the horse.


This is narrow, sure. I am curious to see if studying history does increase ones output as an engineer. Also, if it correlates positively to some other interesting life outcomes (happiness, life expectancy ...)

But I don't know it does. Do you ?

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    $\begingroup$ I for one have always found this nebulous claim that "being well-rounded" is a marketable asset an absurd claim. It seems to me that regular reading of any number of intelligent magazines would accomplish the same. Of course there is a problem with students in the academy eschewing academics, but, perhaps that is more a problem for us not being serious about our own discipline. More to the point, to argue liberal arts for being educated is defensible, to argue it for job-placement is probably absurd. Forgive me if I doubt surveys done by universities for the purpose of recruiting... $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Apr 16 '15 at 2:19
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The concept of the well rounded education is important. With a hat tip to Joseph's reference to Steve Job's remarks, there's nothing that's purely one discipline. Nothing. You are an engineer. 100% engineer. Still, you need to communicate with the outside world. You need to understand how to write in your native language to pass information along. Even in the "olden days," whenever that was, there were the basic subjects that one needed to master before focusing on their chosen path. " Readin' writin' arithmetic" as well as history have been with us for hundreds (more, really) of years.

More than the pedagogical aspect, this is important for people to not be social outcasts. In engineering school, we've all run into the guy who was brilliant in a very narrow sense, but was unable to carry on a conversation beyond his/her narrow interest.

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    $\begingroup$ I hear what you're saying, but, I think being aware of the Facebook, Twitter, to a lesser extent what is on TV, in the movies, sports, this is what has more to do with "connecting to society". Personally, I'd like to see a lot more freedom in the degree options of today's students. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Apr 15 '15 at 14:09
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As a computer science student who writes a lot, wants to publish his own fiction book soon, and who has always done well in his English/humanities classes, I completely understand the animosity that the other engineering students feel for the other side of academia.

From my perspective, the humanities seem useless. Who cares about old dead white men. I program things. I make things. I have a $80k/yr job lined up for me that does not strenuously test my language skills.

Moreover, the classes are easy. The only real English class that I have ever taken involved a 5 page paper every week and it was scaled to a B-. That is a real English class. The five other English classes I took involved the females and some males in the class talking about their feelings. There were maybe two papers and they were maybe a few pages long. I showed up for class maybe twice a semester. Didn't even read the books. Just wrote about feminism and I got my A.

Those five English classes were a waste of my time-- I did not even learn how to write from them, I just learned that I disliked liberals.

It is my opinion that the vast majority of English classes are a waste of time. The humanities department sets out to educate kids and teach them to read and write and think critically. They do not. The majority of humanities classes, not just English, devolve into talking about how white heterosexual males have wronged every imaginable demographic. Many engineers are are also such white heterosexual males. They would probably rather not learn about why their fathers wronged others and how they are currently wronging others through invisible slights.

If the humanities classes were more rigorous and more focused on academic issues and demonstrably challenging, no engineer would ever scoff at the humanities department. They would fear it, like they fear proof-based math.

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    $\begingroup$ I was fortunate, being a one of those pesky conservative types, I never really ran into the trouble you mention here. Instead, I saw something even more troubling in my humanities classes; apathy. Raw, unbridled, apathy. Apathy that is bred from the claim that degrees are for "job-placement". Ok, so, it is crazy to think that whatever silly topic actually brings you closer to being good at some job. Understanding people... perhaps. But, I could apathetically take infinitely many humanities classes, get good grades, and learn virtually nothing about the human condition... $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Apr 16 '15 at 2:29
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    $\begingroup$ Trouble is this, for the liberal arts model to work you need students who actually care about being educated. That should always be the central thing. NOT job placement. A large part of why I left engineering was this issue. Every time we hit something hard, the prof. would talk about starting salaries. In contrast, physics and math major classes I had professors who just talked about the material without apology. So refreshing. So honest. Anyway, I'm sure better essays have been written and ignored about this so I shut up now. $\endgroup$ – James S. Cook Apr 16 '15 at 2:29
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The best way to teach a student that other disciplines are important to is to live your life in a way that demonstrates that other disciplines are important too. This might seem like an obvious or stupid answer, but it's one of the few methods of "convincing" or "teaching" others to follow one course of action rather than another that just works.

In general, a student who questions the "relevance" of anything other than a STEM topic is one whose teachers have clearly failed them. I say clearly, because all it takes for a student to "value" or see non-STEM topics as "important" is for them to have had a single personal connection to any piece of homework, classwork, discussion, or event related to a non-STEM topic. For example, if there is ONE, JUST ONE, book that a student reads in their English class and which they REALLY connect with in an emotional way, then they no longer need any convincing that there is an intrinsic value to non-STEM subjects.

Another way I like to explain this to students is as follows "A life without love is not a life worth living. Seek out all that you love, and your life will be filled with the love that you seek."

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When i was doing my school/college i loved mathematics, and still love it. In my Profession as software developer i visualize things very analytically. So, when teaching any logical subject its important to link real time examples with what is being taught. Giving exercises that can be fun to do, but to complete the exercise one has to understand and use mathematical concepts to achieve it. This way both fun at work and skills development can be achieved.

If you listen to the point of view of those students who are not interested in the subject, they would say what is the use of it, why should i pay attention to ?

Cheers, Shambhu

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    $\begingroup$ I might be a bit slow today, but does your answer answer the question at all? $\endgroup$ – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 17 '15 at 13:19

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